By Colin Burnett
Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies
When all is said and done, the year 2015 may well look like 1989, when Hollywood churned out a series of massively successful blockbusters like Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Back to the Future Part II, The Little Mermaid and Look Who’s Talking. This year, we already have two major hits, Furious 7 and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Two other cinematic juggernauts are now being promoted, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and the latest James Bond film, SPECTRE.
What do we learn from the SPECTRE ad campaign — specifically, the teaser released on March 27? It reveals that the Bond franchise, like the others in the crowded 2015 field, has a sense of its own history.
“Here was a target for him, right to hand. He would take on SMERSH and hunt it down.” These lines appear near the end of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953), the first of 12 novels and two short-story collections featuring the iconic English spy James Bond. If it has become an irresistible cliché to associate Bond with stories perhaps best described in the sales pitch for the “Secret Agent Ego Trip” that Doug Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) takes in the sci-fi adventure film Total Recall (1990) — he’ll “get the girl, kill the bad guys and save the entire planet!” — the original Bond adventures are hardly so glamorous or self-contained. Now, his mission is to extract a slow revenge from a Soviet counterintelligence organization that lived up to its name — a combine of smiert spionam (“death to spies”) — by intimidating his first true love, the double agent Vesper Lynd, to the point of suicide.
What distinguishes the Bond of the novels from the irreverent, superhuman hero laid upon us by Roger Moore, let’s say — a character whose lack of development is guaranteed by the amnesia he apparently suffers between assignments — is that Fleming created a protagonist whose traumas remain with him, who remembers and learns. But for many admirers of the movies, the “true” Bond is one who effortlessly thwarts elaborate, cartoonish schemes for world domination, the one unrelated to the next, by defeating an endless string of colorful megalomaniacal villains. Bond remains surgical, witty, detached — the ageless spy “we know and love.” He pulls the trigger and moves on — to the next chilled bottle of Bollinger, the next hokey pun, the next sexual conquest, the next evil plot. James Bond merely “returns.” He never picks up where he left off.
Fleming’s character demands an entirely different form of engagement, not unlike that of Netflix’s Daredevil, who trades his personal wellbeing for that of the city he hopes to protect. Avenging Vesper’s death, readers come to realize, will require a sacrifice worthy of hers. Her suicide had saved Bond from SMERSH, and he owes to her memory the duty of decimating the group, whose sheer size and reputation for cold efficiency guarantees a drawn-out affair. SMERSH can, if it chooses, devote its resources entirely to hunting Bond in turn, as indeed it will in Fleming’s fifth novel, 1957’s From Russia With Love. Battling an enemy with no known leader and tens of thousands of skilled agents who live in the shadows, this Bond is embarking upon a slow path of retribution — and suffering.
One of the pleasures in Fleming’s Bond, in short, is that of long-form storytelling that postpones narrative closure, enlarges our understanding of the character and holds emotional payoffs in abeyance. At the end of the first novel, we ask, when —how— will Bond avenge Vesper? What toll will it take on him physically, mentally, emotionally? Such questions create anticipation for the next stage in the narrative arc. Seriality is inherently erotetic; we pose and seek answers to pressing narrative questions that encourage our long-term commitment.
The 1953 novel launched but the first in a long line of “serial moments” in the franchise’s history. The darker 1950s SMERSH angle of suicide and vengeance attracted a modest readership for Fleming and was phased out after the 1959 novel Goldfinger — not the last time the Bond franchise failed to live up to expectations.
Bond became a pop-cult phenomenon in earnest when the stories were serialized as a comic strip in the Daily Express starting in 1958 (fig.1). The comic’s lighter tone drew more readers, but Fleming had grander designs. In three of his next four novels — Thunderball (1961), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963) and You Only Live Twice (1964) — he inserted Bond into a long-term confrontation with the colorful “thaw”-era international terrorist organization SPECTRE, headed by the mysterious master villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Fleming’s sales skyrocketed. Unlike the SMERSH plot, this arc came to a resolution. In novel after novel, Bond took out Blofeld’s operatives one by one and finally cornered his arch-nemesis in a medieval Japanese castle.
Alongside this strategic reboot, Fleming licensed the novels to a film company by the name of Eon Productions, which immediately set out to adapt the SPECTRE/Blofeld plotline, beginning with Dr. No(1962) and continuing on until Diamonds Are Forever (1971). The audience for the franchise grew even more. The third film, 1965’s Thunderball, was the franchise’s first blockbuster, grossing over a billion dollars (adjusted for inflation).
But Eon failed to meet expectations from a creative standpoint. For legal reasons — the writer-producer Kevin McClory, who co-owned the rights to the Thunderball story and to SPECTRE, had an increasingly tense relationship with Eon — Eon decided to bury the SPECTRE arc throughout the 1970s. And when to their dismay McClory began planning his own Bond film, Never Say Never Again(1983), a remake of Thunderball featuring SPECTRE and Blofeld, Eon producers killed off Blofeld in a rather comical scene in For Your Eyes Only (1981), thus bringing to a pitiful end a storyline they had cultivated in six of the first seven films.
In November 2013, Eon Productions acquired all rights from the McClory estate, and the recent teaser raises expectations that SPECTRE, due out in November 2015, will finally write the closing chapter of Fleming’s SMERSH continuity — by tying it to a rebooted SPECTRE plotline.
Daniel Craig’s Bond, introduced in 2006’s Casino Royale, is a character with a past, a Bond who endures or witnesses trauma — in other words, a SMERSH-era Fleming spy. But SMERSH isn’t responsible for Vesper’s (Eva Green) suicide in the film continuity; we learn in 2008’s Quantum of Solace that the blame falls on a secretive group, with ties to the CIA and to MI6, called Quantum. Still, like Fleming’s version of the character, the world around Craig’s Bond shows wear and tear, and so does he, not only because of the physical demands of the job, but because painful memories continue to force their way back into his life, coloring his outlook, his missions.
The teaser opens with a brief glimpse of MI6 headquarters, blown out, defaced by the villain Silva (Javier Bardem) in Skyfall (2012). Immediately, a traumatic memory flashes up. Silva, a former “00,” set off a bomb in M’s (Judi Dench) office, sending her a warning that he would avenge her callous neglect of him when he was held as a prisoner decades ago. At the end of the film, Bond faces the death of someone close to him for the third time in the series. Killed by Silva’s goons, M — a maternal figure who had nurtured him through his first years as a “00” — is held in Bond’s arms, not unlike his embrace of Vesper before her death in Casino Royale and of his mentor, and father figure, René Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini), after he’s murdered in Quantum of Solace.
More echoes of the past: The teaser continues with Eve Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) handing Bond some personal effects rescued from his childhood home, also destroyed in Skyfall. One such effect is an order of temporary guardianship. After the death of his parents, Bond was left to one J. Oberhauser (who appears to be based on a character from Fleming’s 1966 short story “Octopussy”). The second document is a photo, where we see Bond as a child, Oberhauser (perhaps) and a third figure, another child, it would seem. But the image is partially scorched — the boy’s identity has gone up in flame.
Bond sets out on speedboat across a desolate lake among snowy mountains. A single chalet rests on the lake’s edge. There, Bond finds a bedraggled Mr. White — the past recurs yet again. He was a key member of Quantum. SPECTRE promises to tie up loose ends that the 1950s SMERSH arc never did; Bond will finally confront those responsible for Vesper’s suicide.
Then the teaser takes a turn — back to the 1960s now. Bond reveals to Mr. White that his name was mentioned at a meeting he infiltrated. He presents White with a ring marked by a seven-legged octopus — the symbol of SPECTRE.
The teaser ends with a scene, likely to take place late in the final film, where a mysterious figure is shown seated at a table, the octopus ring adorning his right middle finger and silhouetted — concealed from view in a manner reminiscent of the Blofeld of the Connery films. He speaks: “Welcome, James. It’s been a long time. And, finally, here we are.” Is this figure, voiced by Christoph Waltz of Inglourious Basterds (2009) fame, the boy from the photo? Blofeld? Or both?
Where does the teaser leave us, then? With questions, and yet much more. We can safely say that in today’s blockbuster market, Eon producers finally seem ready to cash out on 60 years of serial Bonds.
About the Author
Colin Burnett is assistant professor of film and media studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He has published in articles in Studies in French Cinema, Transnational Cinemas, The New Review of Film and Television Studies and The Journal of American Studies, as well as in anthologies on Rudolf Arnheim, media authorship and Robert Bresson. His most recent article, on the role that film director Roger Leenhardt's postwar new realism played in the aesthetic history of the influential cineclub Objectif 49, is forthcoming in the journal Film History. His forthcoming book, Inventing the Auteur: The Avant-Garde, Cinephilia, and the Making of Robert Bresson, will be published by Indiana University Press in 2016.